Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Romas - A forgotten Indian diaspora?

From Hindustan Times, March 26

Friday, March 24, 2006

Jacques Chirac: The pesky, protectionist president

Chirac leaves EU summit as Frenchman speaks English Nicholas Watt and David Gow in

Friday March 24, 2006
The Guardian

Jacques Chirac led a French walkout from the opening session of the EU's annual spring summit last night when a fellow Frenchman committed the grave offence of speaking English.

Highlighting France's acute sensitivity towards the decline of the language which once dominated the EU, Mr Chirac led three senior ministers out of the talks when Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the French head of the European employers' group Unice, abandoned his mother tongue on the ground that English is "the language of business".

Mr Chirac picked up his papers and left, with Philippe Douste-Blazy, the foreign minister and Thierry Breton, the finance minister, in tow. Gallic pride was soon restored when Jean-Claude Trichet, the French head of the European Central Bank, addressed the meeting in his mother tongue - and Mr Chirac led his ministers back.

The walkout set the scene for what is expected to be an inconclusive summit ending at lunchtime today.


Military drops leaflets in Waziristan

From The News, Pakistan

By our correspondents

WANA/MIRAMSHAH: Planes dropped leaflets in both South Waziristan and North Waziristan on Thursday on the occasion of Pakistan Day to urge the tribesmen to beware of foreigners and their local supporters who had allied themselves with the "Yahood Aur Hanood" (Jews and Hindus).

The leaflets, in Urdu and Pashto, carried the title "warning". The Pakistan Army produced and dropped the leaflets. There was a prayer at the end of the leaflets for the tribespeople. The leaflets, dropped in Wana, Makeen, Tiarza and other places in South Waziristan and in Miramshah and Mir Ali tehsils in North Waziristan, argued that the war on terror in Waziristans was not against the people of the tribal areas. The statement said it was a war against foreigners and their local harbourers "who were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Yahood Aur Hanood" and were posing threats to Pakistan’s integrity and causing harm to the tribal society. The leaflets asked the tribespeople to keep out the troublemakers from their areas and defend their land against intruders.

Tribesmen who read the leaflets were wondering over the use of the word "Yahood Aur Hanood" to describe the enemy in the leaflets. Most thought it meant the Jews worldwide and the dominant Hindus of India. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Day celebrations in South Waziristan were marred by rocket attack on a military outpost in Ganj Takray area in Shakai.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Celebrating Nowruz with some of my Iranian friends

A few Iranians from the Cite U got together last evening to herald in the new year. We began at 8:30 pm and ended at 2:30 in the morning. Drinks flowed, we munched on tokhmeh (salted melon seeds), nibbled Iranian cookies, sipped Iranian chai, changed the venue thrice and danced to kitsch Iranian pop music. A very memorable evening... Here's a picture of our group in front of the Haft Seen table at Fondation du Cambodge . Sahar (the girl in the front row) seems fascinated by the goldfish in the bowl!

Another Haft Seen table at Maison des Provences de France

This picture is from an evening gettogether for Nowruz last evening at Maison des Provences de France. Very elaborate.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Happy Nowruz!

It's the Iranian new year on the 21st! A festival that is celebrated by many in Iran, Central Asia and also by the Parsis in India. This festival proves how fascinating and perplexing a country Iran is - Nowruz, the most important festival in the Islamic Republic, is un-Inslamic in nature! Its origins lie in Zoroastrianism - the first montheistic religion and one that influenced greatly other religions that followed. Many mullahs have tried to tone down the fervour of the festival but in vain! Sal-e noh mubarak!

A major tradition of Norouz is the setting of the Haft Seen (هفت سین) - the seven 'S's, seven items starting with letter S or "seen" (س) in Persian alphabet), which are seven specific items on a table symbolically corresponding to the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. (The picture above is the Haft Seen table laid by Behrouz, an Iranian student, in my hostel.) Today they are changed and modified but some have kept their symbolism. Every family attempts to set as beautiful a Haft Seen table as they can, as it is not only of special spiritual meaning to them, but also is noticed by visitors to their house during Norouzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste.

The following list is an example of some common Haft Seen items, though there isn't consensus as to which seven:

sabzeh - wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish (symbolising rebirth)
samanu - a sweet pudding made from wheat germ (symbolising affluence)
senjed - the dried fruit of the jujube tree (love)
seer - garlic (medicine)
seeb - apples, (beauty and health)
somaq - sumac berries (the colour of the sunrise)
serkeh - vinegar (age and patience)
sonbol - the fragrant hyacinth flower (the coming of spring)
sekkeh - coins (prosperity and wealth)

Other items on the table may include:

lit candles (enlightenment and happiness)
a mirror
painted eggs, perhaps one for each member of the family (fertility)
a bowl with two goldfish (life, and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving)
a bowl of water with an orange in it (the earth floating in space)
rose water for its magical cleansing powers
the national colours, for a patriotic touch
a holy book (e.g., the Qur'an, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bible, Torah or the Avesta) or a poetry book (almost always either the Shahnama or of Hafez)

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

Bush's handwriting...

Wonder what handwriting anlaysts will have to say about this one? This is from the handwritten letter he sent to Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, to thank him for an "unforgettable visit". More here.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Hindu dance from Bali

Here's a shot of a dance performed last evening at my residence, as part of an Indonesian soirée. The dancer said it was his dream to travel to India and experience what Hindusism was like there!

CORRECTION: The face behind the mask was somebody else

March 17, 2006
Editors' Note, NYT

A front-page article last Saturday profiled Ali Shalal Qaissi, identifying him as the hooded man forced to stand on a box, attached to wires, in a photograph from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal of 2003 and 2004. He was shown holding such a photograph. As an article on Page A1 today makes clear, Mr. Qaissi was not that man.

The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi's insistence that he was the man in the photograph. Mr. Qaissi's account had already been broadcast and printed by other outlets, including PBS and Vanity Fair, without challenge. Lawyers for former prisoners at Abu Ghraib vouched for him. Human rights workers seemed to support his account. The Pentagon, asked for verification, declined to confirm or deny it.

Despite the previous reports, The Times should have been more persistent in seeking comment from the military. A more thorough examination of previous articles in The Times and other newspapers would have shown that in 2004 military investigators named another man as the one on the box, raising suspicions about Mr. Qaissi's claim.

The Times also overstated the conviction with which representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed their view of whether Mr. Qaissi was the man in the photograph. While they said he could well be that man, they did not say they believed he was.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Window with a view

The view from my window in Paris on Tuesday evening...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The face behind the mask...

A great story from The New York Times... Just like thousands of lives that have been relegated to a heap of statistics, we have rarely read about those people abused in Abu Ghraib. Here, we learn about the man who became the symbol of torture... why he ended up in the prison, his experience, his fears, his friends, his hopes, his magnamity.

Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare


AMMAN, Jordan, March 8 — Almost two years later, Ali Shalal Qaissi's wounds are still raw.

There is the mangled hand, an old injury that became infected by the shackles chafing his skin. There is the slight limp, made worse by days tied in uncomfortable positions. And most of all, there are the nightmares of his nearly six-month ordeal at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004.

Mr. Qaissi, 43, was prisoner 151716 of Cellblock 1A. The picture of him standing hooded atop a cardboard box, attached to electrical wires with his arms stretched wide in an eerily prophetic pose, became the indelible symbol of the torture at Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. [The American military said Thursday that it would abandon the prison and turn it over to the Iraqi government.]

"I never wanted to be famous, especially not in this way," he said, as he sat in a squalid office rented by his friends here in Amman. That said, he is now a prisoner advocate who clearly understands the power of the image: it appears on his business card.

At first glance, there is little to connect Mr. Qaissi with the infamous picture of a hooded man except his left hand, which he says was disfigured when an antique rifle exploded in his hands at a wedding several years ago. A disfigured hand also seems visible in the infamous picture, and features prominently in Mr. Qaissi's outlook on life. In Abu Ghraib, the hand, with two swollen fingers, one of them partly blown off, and a deep gash in the palm, earned him the nickname Clawman, he said.

A spokesman for the American military in Iraq declined to comment, saying it would violate the Geneva Conventions to disclose the identity of prisoners in any of the Abu Ghraib photographs, just as it would to discuss the reasons behind Mr. Qaissi's detention.

But prison records from the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq after the invasion, made available to reporters by Amnesty International, show that Mr. Qaissi was in American custody at the time. Beyond that, researchers with both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say they have interviewed Mr. Qaissi and, along with lawyers suing military contractors in a class-action suit over the abuse, believe that he is the man in the photograph.

Under the government of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Qaissi was a mukhtar, in effect a neighborhood mayor, a role typically given to members of the ruling Baath Party and closely tied to its nebulous security services. After the fall of the government, he managed a parking lot belonging to a mosque in Baghdad.

He was arrested in October 2003, he said, because he loudly complained to the military, human rights organizations and the news media about soldiers' dumping garbage on a local soccer field. But some of his comments suggest that he is at least sympathetic toward insurgents who fight American soldiers.

"Resistance is an international right," he said.

Weeks after complaining about the garbage, he said, he was surrounded by Humvees, hooded, tied up and carted to a nearby base before being transferred to Abu Ghraib. Then the questioning began.

"They blamed me for attacking U.S. forces," he said, "but I said I was handicapped; how could I fire a rifle?" he said, pointing to his hand. "Then he asked me, 'Where is Osama bin Laden?' And I answered, 'Afghanistan.' "

How did he know? "Because I heard it on TV," he replied.

He said it soon became evident that the goal was to coax him to divulge names of people who might be connected to attacks on American forces. His hand, then bandaged, was often the focus of threats and inducements, he said, with interrogators offering to fix it or to squash it at different times. After successive interrogations, he said he was finally given a firm warning: "If you don't speak, next time, we'll send you to a place where even dogs don't live."

Finally, he said, he was taken to a truck, placed face down, restrained and taken to a special section of the prison where he heard shouts and screams. He was forced to strip off all his clothes, then tied with his hands up high. A guard began writing on his chest and forehead, what someone later read to him as, "Colin Powell."

In all, there were about 100 cells in the cellblock, he said, with prisoners of all ages, from teenagers to old men. Interrogators were often dressed in civilian clothing, their identities strictly shielded.

The prisoners were sleep deprived, he said, and the punishments they faced ranged from bizarre to lewd: an elderly man was forced to wear a bra and pose; a youth was told to hit the other adults; and groups of men were organized in piles. There was the dreaded "music party," he said, in which prisoners were placed before loudspeakers. Mr. Qaissi also said he had been urinated on by a guard. Then there were the pictures.

"Every soldier seemed to have a camera," he said. "They used to bring us pictures and threaten to deliver them to our families"

Today, those photographs, turned into montages and slideshows on Mr. Qaissi's computer, are stark reminders of his experiences in the cellblock. As he scanned through the pictures, each one still instilling shock as it popped on the screen, he would occasionally stop, his voice breaking as he recounted the story behind each photograph.

In one, a young man shudders in fear as a dog menaces him.

"That's Talib," he said. "He was a young Yemeni, a student of the Beaux-Arts School in Baghdad, and was really shaken."

In another, Pfc. Lynndie R. England, who was convicted last September of conspiracy and maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners, poses in front of a line of naked men, a cigarette in her mouth. "That's Jalil, Khalil and Abu Khattab," he said. "They're all brothers, and they're from my neighborhood."

Then there is the picture of Mr. Qaissi himself, standing atop a cardboard box, taken 15 days into his detention. He said he had only recently been given a blanket after remaining naked for days, and had fashioned the blanket into a kind of poncho.

The guards took him to a heavy box filled with military meal packs, he said, and hooded him. He was told to stand atop the box as electric wires were attached to either hand. Then, he claims, they shocked him five times, enough for him to bite his tongue.

Specialist Sabrina Harman was convicted last May for her role in abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but she was accused of threatening to electrocute a hooded inmate on a box if he stepped off it, not of shocking him while he was atop it.

After almost six months in Abu Ghraib, Mr. Qaissi said, he was loaded onto a truck, this time without any shackles, but still hooded. As the truck sped out of the prison, another man removed the hood and announced that they had been freed.

With a thick shock of gray hair and melancholy eyes, Mr. Qaissi is today a self-styled activist for prisoners' rights in Iraq. Shortly after being released from Abu Ghraib in 2004, he started the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons with several other men immortalized in the Abu Ghraib pictures.

Financed partly by Arab nongovernmental organizations and private donations, the group's aim is to publicize the cases of prisoners still in custody, and to support prisoners and their families with donations of clothing and food.

Mr. Qaissi has traveled the Arab world with his computer slideshows and presentations, delivering a message that prisoner abuse by Americans and their Iraqi allies continues. He says that as the public face of his movement, he risks retribution from Shiite militias that have entered the Iraqi police forces and have been implicated in prisoner abuse. But that has not stopped him.

Last week, he said, he lectured at the American University in Beirut, on Monday he drove to Damascus to talk to students and officials, and in a few weeks he heads to Libya for more of the same.

Despite the cruelty he witnessed, Mr. Qaissi said he harbored no animosity toward America or Americans. "I forgive the people who did these things to us," he said. "But I want their help in preventing these sorts of atrocities from continuing."

Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Where Muslim singles and friends feel at home!"

"MuslimFriends is dedicated to bringing Muslim friends and singles together by offering valuable services to all of our Muslim friends in your city and around the world. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world but finding that one special someone for friendship or even marriage can be very frustrating if you don't know where to look..." It's funny though to see an image of a Hindu wedding on their homepage!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Did the English language media go overboard on the Bush visit?

For the record, I am no anti-American. I think it's great that finally American and Indian interests are beginning to converge. We might as well be prudent to remember the longstanding adage that has been associated with politics - There are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

Yet, as a journalist by training, I thought the Indian English language media fawned a little too much on the Bush visit. Take a look at these headlines... The Times of India even had a headlined that heralded the birth of a "Ind-US Civilisation"! But HT's banner headline the day after Bush landed takes the cake: "He's a friend"!

Friday, March 03, 2006

What the CPM laid out for Bush's dinner...

From The Telegraph

Another affront... American sniffer dogs sniff Gandhi's tomb

I think Americans urgently need to take classes in cultural sensitivity and respect! Take a look at the image in this news report in HT... A sniffer dog is doing the rounds of Gandhi's samadhi! I am no Gandhian but he sure represents some of India's core ideals, just like I hate Bush as a person but respect the constitutional post that he holds. Wonder if the government will take this up with the American authorities? And then we wonder why American soldiers pissed on the Koran!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

If this is true, it's utterly reprehensible and unacceptable!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Manmohan Singh frisked for Bush

By Iftikhar Gillani, The Daily Times

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who received US President George Bush at the airport in breach of protocol, was reportedly frisked by American agents when he was allowed to approach the president.

The media was kept out of sight and hence could not see the incident, but BJP vice president and member of parliament Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi later told the media that it was an insult and humiliation for the nation to allow foreigners to check the Indian prime minister in his own land.

Unprecedented security arrangements have been made for Bush who arrived here for a three-day visit on Wednesday. US Secret Service agents, camping in New Delhi for the last two months, have virtually sealed off the Maurya Sheraton hotel, which is hosting the visiting president. The adjoining hotels have also been taken over by US and Indian security officials. Both carriageways of the roads used by Bush’s motorcade will be closed for traffic.

Before Air Force One landed at the technical area of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Indian Air Force aircrafts carried an aerial recce. A team of US officials also visited hospitals in the national capital to carry out checks and identify facilities to deal with an emergency.

At least four helicopters were brought to Delhi from the US a couple of weeks ago as were several cars, including some limousines, which will be used by Bush for travel within the city.

Bush will start his official engagements on Thursday (today) morning by visiting Rajghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi in the morning after a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.